Introduction to the Five Shen of Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine

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The Five Shen are the spirits associated with each of the body’s five yin organ systems (Heart, Kidney, Spleen, Liver, and Lungs). The origin of the Five-Shen system is found within the Shangqing lineage of Taoist practice. Each of these spirits has a connection not only with a yin organ and its associated element, but also with the energy of a planet and a direction. To “wake up” the Shen of the organs is similar to “calling in the spirits” for a shamanic ritual. The Five Shen, when in balance, vibrate with a resonant beauty similar to the planets’ “Harmony of the Spheres.” Ultimately, within the context of our neidan (Inner Alchemy) practice, the Five Shen are returned to the unified Mind of Tao.

Shen: Emperor of the Heart

Within the Five Shen system we find something like a spiritual hierarchy: Shen–the spirit of the Heart–is the Emperor, with aspects of its power–like Ministers–residing as the spirits of the other organs. When these secondary spirits function as faithful emissaries of the Heart’s Shen, communication between our organs is balanced and harmonious resulting in a happy well-functioning “Body Politic.”

The element associated with the Heart’s Shen is fire. Its direction is south, and the planetary energy that it embodies is that of Mars. As the emperor of the Five Shen, it is associated with the overall quality of our awareness, which can be perceived in the energy flowing through our eyes. Clear, sparkling, responsive eyes are one indication of healthy Shen—awareness that is vibrant, fluid, and intelligent.

Zhi: the Kidney’s Will to Act

The Shen of the kidney system is Zhi or will. Zhi is associated with the element of water, and it carries the energy of the direction north and the planet Mercury. Zhi is the minister in charge of the intention and effort required to accomplish things. This includes the effort and perseverance needed to succeed in our spiritual practice. According to Taoism, the highest use of personal will is to align ourselves with the “will of Heaven,” i.e. with the Tao. The spirit-infused action arising from such a choice has the quality of wuwei: non-volitional and spontaneously skillful or "right" action.

Yi: Intellect of the Spleen

The spirit of the Spleen System is Yi or intellect. Yi is associated with the earth element. Its direction is center and its planetary energy is Saturn. Yi includes our capacity to use our conceptual mind to exercise discernment and to form intentions. An unbalanced Yi can manifest as discursiveness or unconscious internal chatter—a kind of over-thinking or “pensiveness” that damages the Spleen. A healthy Yi manifests as spirit-infused intelligence and understanding.

Po: the Corporeal Soul of the Lungs

The Po or corporeal soul is associated with the lungs and is the aspect of consciousness that dissolves with the elements of the body at the time of death. The Po belongs to the metal element, the direction west, and the planet Venus. Since the Po exists only within the context of a single lifetime, it tends to be associated with our immediate or more dense desires as opposed to the Hun, which expresses more long-range commitments.

Hun: the Ethereal Soul of the Liver

The Hun or ethereal soul is associated with the liver system and is the aspect of consciousness that continues to exist in more subtle realms even after the death of the body. The Hun is associated with the wood element, its direction is east, and its planetary energy is that of Jupiter. As our spiritual practice deepens, more and more of the Po–or physical–aspects of consciousness are transmuted or used as support for the Hun– or more ethereal–aspects. As this process unfolds, we are, within our very bodies, manifesting “Heaven on Earth.”

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Reninger, Elizabeth. "Introduction to the Five Shen of Chinese Medicine." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Reninger, Elizabeth. (2023, April 5). Introduction to the Five Shen of Chinese Medicine. Retrieved from Reninger, Elizabeth. "Introduction to the Five Shen of Chinese Medicine." Learn Religions. (accessed June 3, 2023).